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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Foster, Thomas Henry
(January 31, 1875–November 14, 1951)

and his Father,

Thomas Dove Foster

((November 25, 1847–July 20, 1915),

were presidents of the John Morrell and Company meatpacking firm, which had its headquarters in Ottumwa, Iowa, from 1877 to 1955. Founded in 1827 in Bradford, England, by George Morrell, the company started as a wholesale food provision business before focusing on curing hams and bacon in plants in Ireland during the 1850s. In 1860 Morrell's headquarters moved from Bradford to Liverpool. In 1864 the company established a North American branch in New York City and opened meatpacking plants in London, Ontario, in 1868, and then Chicago in 1871. The London plant closed in 1874.

    Born in Bradford, Thomas Dove Foster was a grandson of founder George Morrell and son of George's daughter Mary. He learned the meat trade primarily by working as a hog buyer with the company's Ireland operations. Before he reached the age of 20, he was already one of the company's top employees and was selected as the manager of the company's American branch after the establishment of the Chicago packing plant. T. D., as he was usually referred to, then moved the company's American packing operations to Ottumwa in 1877. In 1893, after a reorganization of the firm in 1887 that included closing the Chicago plant in 1888, T. D. Foster became chairman of both the English and American meatpacking operations of the company until his death in Ottumwa in 1915. In 1915 the company was also incorporated as a separate American firm. Thomas Henry Foster then headed Morrell from 1922 to 1944.

    During his tenure as Morrell's president, T. D. was tremendously influential in employee relations in the Ottumwa packing plant. He saw himself as his workers' friend and prided himself on how all of his workers recognized him by his red hair. Evangelical Christianity greatly influenced T. D.'s paternalism. An admirer and friend of Dwight Moody, a leading evangelist during the period, Foster developed programs at Morrell that he believed would not only create favorable labor relations but also would provide for his workers' spiritual uplift. In 1886 Foster started an annual company picnic that combined a paid trip to a site generally outside Ottumwa where workers and their families celebrated with food and entertainment. During T. D.'s presidency, Morrell paid workers' regular wages for the holiday. In addition, T. D. was one of the founders of the Ottumwa branch of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in 1887. He then contributed $5,000 toward the construction of the city's new YMCA building, situated near the packinghouse district, in 1891. He not only wanted workers to use its various athletic, recreational, and bathing facilities, but especially hoped that they would demonstrate evangelical Christian commitments. During the 1890s, Foster also sponsored Sunday services conducted by a pastor from the East End Presbyterian Church in a tent outside the packing plant during warm weather and in the plant cafeteria during cold weather. Foster had founded the East End Presbyterian Church, which was located in the packinghouse district until 1903.

    In addition to his central contributions to the YMCA movement, Foster played important roles in several other business, civic, and philanthropic organizations in Ottumwa and Iowa. On the boards of directors for several Ottumwa firms, T. D. helped to establish the Ottumwa Commercial Association in 1902, which then became the Ottumwa Chamber of Commerce. He was its first president in 1902 and also served as president in 1907. T. D. was instrumental in convincing Andrew Carnegie to donate $50,000 for the construction of Ottumwa's new public library building in 1900. He served on the board of trustees of Parsons College in Fairfield starting in 1883, and also on the Iowa State Board of Education from 1909 to 1911.

    T. D.'s second-born son, Thomas Henry Foster, usually known as T. Henry, became Morrell's president after John H. Morrell's death in 1921. (T. D.'s oldest son, William Heber Thompson Foster served as manager for the company's Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant from 1912 to 1939.) Born in Chicago, T. Henry began his career with Morrell working for three summers from 1887 to 1889 before working full time in the smoked meats department in the Ottumwa plant in 1890. He then left to attend Parsons Academy and Parsons College in Fairfield in 1893-1894. T. Henry returned to work as an office clerk in the Ottumwa plant before taking positions as assistant and then head bookkeeper. In 1897 he went to Boston to assist with the company's branch distribution house there. He worked there for three years before working in the New York City branch for another three years. In 1901 he returned to Ottumwa and helped to establish Morrell's canning department and then took charge of that department in 1902. In 1909 T. Henry oversaw the company's new operations in Sioux Falls, and remained there while a new plant was built. He returned to Ottumwa in 1912 and became his father's assistant manager until T. D. died in 1915. John H. Morrell then became the company's president, and T. Henry was named vice president and general manager. When John H. Morrell died in 1921, T. Henry assumed the company's presidency in February 1922.

    During the period of T. Henry's presidency, the company substantially expanded its operations. Total sales increased nearly fivefold. Morrell became a public corporation in 1928 and added a new plant in Topeka, Kansas, in 1931. Many new buildings in Ottumwa, Sioux Falls, and Topeka were built during T. Henry's presidency. In Ottumwa, a new office building was constructed as well as new refrigerated storage and curing, smokehouse, beef cooling, and canning buildings, among others. T. Henry also led the company in new directions in terms of its labor relations. Although he continued some of his father's earlier paternalistic practices, such as the company picnic (minus the paid day off), and started many other new welfare capitalist measures, such as insurance, vacation, and pension plans, T. Henry was more concerned with stable industrial relations and did not attempt to Christianize the employees as his father had done. Indeed, under T. Henry's leadership, Morrell attempted to limit employees' union-building efforts. Morrell squelched the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen (AMCBW) local union of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in a dramatic strike in Ottumwa in 1921 in which Morrell and city authorities successfully petitioned Iowa Governor Nathan Kendall to dispatch the Iowa National Guard to police the plant. Morrell also engaged in a two-year holdout against the AMCBW local's strike and boycott in Sioux Falls between 1935 and 1937, and reluctantly recognized the militant United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) local union of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) at the Ottumwa plant during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

    Like his father, T. Henry was enmeshed in Ottumwa's and Iowa's business, civic, and philanthropic circles. He was also president of the American Meat Institute in 1944-1945, was a member of the Chicago Board of Trade, and served on the board of directors of the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. T. Henry was also a well-known book collector. When he died in Ottumwa in 1951, he owned 5,500 books, including many rare titles. In 1946 T. Henry wrote Shakespeare, Man of Mystery, in which he argued that Edward deVere wrote the plays, poems, and sonnets attributed to William Shakespeare.
Sources The Morrell Meat Packing Company Collection, housed in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, contains significant holdings of papers, diaries, letters, and speeches by Thomas Dove Foster and Thomas Henry Foster. Also useful are R. Ames Montgomery, Thomas D. Foster: A Biography (1930); Lawrence Oakley Chee ver, The House of Morrell (1948); and Wilson J. Warren, Struggling with "Iowa's Pride": Labor Relations, Unionism, and Politics in the Rural Midwest since 1877 (2000).
Contributor: Wilson J. Warren

Cite as: Warren, Wilson J. "Foster, Thomas Henry" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 17 December 2017